Tuesday, August 15, 2017

BAKKHAI - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival is once again visiting Ancient Greek drama with a stunning production of Bakkhai by Euripides at the Tom Patterson Theatre. It uses Anne Carson’s translation and adaptation and she prefers to transliterate the title of the great play her way instead of the more traditional Bacchae.

No doubt you are keeping track of the Festival’s production of Greek drama and recall that the Bacchae was produced there in 1993 in a redoubtable staging by David William with Colm Feore, Ted Dykstra and Barbara Bryne. Otherwise the Festival seems to go into allergic reaction at the thought of producing classical drama but there are exceptions and that is another issue.
 
From left: Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus, Laura Condlln as a member of the Bakkhai, Mac Fyfe as Dionysos 
and Brad Hodder as Guard in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Jillian Keiley directs the current production with intelligence, knowledge and an intuitive feel for Greek drama. She makes brilliant use of the Chorus and has some marvellous staging effects to give us an outstanding Bakkhai.

From the little that we know or can infer from Ancient Greek tragedy, the productions were more operatic than straight plays. The productions had music and the Chorus sang or chanted some of the poetry written for it especially the choral odes. How do you handle the issue today? If the leader of the Chorus speaks the lines, then the poetry allotted to the Chorus become prosaic. If they all speak together, it may be difficult to understand them or, worse, they sound ridiculous.

Keiley has found a splendid compromise. The Chorus (the Bacchae or devotees of Dionysos a.k.a. Bacchus) speak, sing, chant and dance to music composed by Veda Hille. Hille’s music plays a key role in the success of the production. In its lyricism and punctuated sections, it fits the poetry and the mood of the play. The choral odes are no longer impediments to the action but become integrated into the drama. A major achievement.

The Bakkhai is about the arrival of a new religion in Thebes which Pentheus, its king, and the women of the city reject. Dionysos whose mother Semele was a Theban and Zeus was his father comes disguised as a mortal to wreak revenge on the people of his native city. Mac Fyfe’s Dionysos is petulant, arrogant, effeminate, vengeful and with has a huge chip on his shoulder.

The youthful Pentheus, his cousin, rejects the new religion. Wearing a suit, Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus is arrogant, puritanical, ill-tempered, violent and a law-and-order ruler. He has a lot in common with Dionysos even though they are on opposite sides of the religious issue. Dionysos has the upper hand, of course, because he is a god and he will wreak unbelievable vengeance on the Thebans. 
Members of company in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Graham Abbey plays the seer Teiresias and Nigel Bennett plays Kadmos, the father of Pentheus. They represent their characters as old codgers with a bit of humour if that can be said to exist in the play. Lucy Peacock plays the role of Agave, Pentheus’s mother and what she does defies the imagination. You may not know the plot of the play and I will not spoil it for you.

Keiley uses Anne Carson’s adaptation. It is poetic and colloquial. Some of the modernisms may go too far (“he’s a shrewd manager of data.” “Call a cab.” Dionysos describes himself as a daimon and explains that “there is no word for it in English.”) The cast handled the language with ease and the performances from the Herdsam of E.B. Smith to the main characters were stellar.

The set by Shawn Kerwin consists of a raised platform in the centre of the Tom Patterson stage. There is extensive and highly effective use of lighting by Cimmeron Meyer and sound by Don Ellis.

Bakkhai was written by Euripides in 405 B.C. near the end of his life while he was living in exile in Macedonia. It is a complex play that has kept scholars and philosophers busy for more than twenty four centuries. Better still, it has kept theatre lovers fascinated since its premiere in Athens in the early hours of the morning in March 405 B.C. at a theatre and a festival named after Dionysos. It won first prize.  
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Bakkhai by Euripides in a version by Anne Carson continues until September 23, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, August 12, 2017

PORGY AND BESS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival has programmed and assigned directorial duties to herself of Porgy and Bess, perhaps one of the most important American operas. She has pulled out all the stops to stage the signature production of the season and has scored a resounding success.

It is a Negro spiritual, a folk opera and original musical combination that deals with life in the lower depths, with race, poverty, murder, drugs and love being ever present. It has an outstanding score by George Gershwin to a libretto by his brother Ira Gershwin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. All of them are white. 
                                                                                                                                                                    The opera is set in Catfish Row in Charleston , South Carolina where the only whites that we see are contemptuous figures in authority The opera opens in what looks like a two-story tenement house designed by Peter J. Davison with people looking from the second floor and others playing craps in
the open space below.                                                                                                                                                                    The opera, with its large cast, has its main characters but it is very much an ensemble work with particular emphasis on the orchestra. There is no attempt to sugar-coat anything and the visceral impact is overwhelming.
 
Talise Trevigne as Bess and Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Porgy is a crippled beggar who drags himself across the stage supported by a crutch. His physical deformity is counterbalanced by his essential humanity and decency. South African bass Musa Ngqungwana sings with a resonance and emotional depth that surpasses the cruelty and evil that surrounds him. His love for Bess is unconditional and immeasurable right to the last chord of the opera when he manages to strike a note of faith, even optimism in a milieu that offers none. When he sings the moving “I Got Plenty of Nothin” his voice and emotion resonate through the theatre. A stupendous performance.

Bess (Talise Trevigne) is the classic victim of her station in life, her sex, her possessive lover Crown, her drug dealer Sportin’ Life and her physical attractiveness. In her own way, she is just as crippled as Porgy.   

There is no shortage of cruelty in the slum of Catfish Row. Crown is a lanky, musclebound thug. He runs away after killing someone and on his return claims Bess who has fallen in love for Porgy. She resists but he brutalizes her mercilessly. Norman Garrett plays the frightful Crown and gives a scary portrayal of the self-absorbed brute.
 Norman Garrett as Crown. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Sportin’ Life is the local drug dealer and he offers a better life to Bess presumably because he has money. He gives her drugs but she rejects his offer to go to New York. She is rejected by everyone as she knocks on their doors except for Porgy, the beggar, the cripple and another “reject.” Listen to the lyricism and passion of Porgy and Bess’s duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and you have been repaid for the price of admission many times over.  

Talise Trevigne’s Bess is attractive, compassionate, tortured and in the end selfish in her betrayal of Porgy for the drug dealer. In other words, she is human. Trevigne has a marvelously strong and dramatic voice and she displays a tremendous emotional range in her performance.

The opera has more than twenty singing roles and no faint-hearted director need apply for the job. But Zambello has directed the opera before and her panache shows. There are outstanding soloists but even more so superb ensemble singing.  
                                                                       
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under John DeMain perform superbly.

Opera at its best.
 _________________
 Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward will be performed thirteen times between July 7 and August 21, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 10, 2017

OKLAHOMA! – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

One would have thought that 1943 was not a particularly auspicious year for a leap in the development of the Broadway musical. World War II was raging and there was much else to preoccupy the world. Yet with the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! an advance was made in producing integrated musicals where the songs advanced the plot and acting became more important. There was precedent for this already but Oklahoma! is a good marking point.

The Glimmerglass Festival production is unfortunately disappointing in many respects. Oklahoma! has some rousing songs, outstanding dance sequels and a good plot but all of that goes to the credit of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who largely carry the production with some exceptions rather than the other way around.

The major exception is the performance of Jarrett Ott as Curly. He enters from the back of the theatre and sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " while walking towards the stage. He has a commanding voice, an impressive presence and dominates the production like a colossus.
 Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller and Jarrett Ott as Curly in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The rest of the performers fall behind him at various distances. Vanessa Becerra as Laurey has a good but not particularly big voice and she is overwhelmed by Ott. To varying degrees the rest of the cast suffers the same fate. Without Ott, many would have been adequate to say the least.

There are some dramatic scenes and some comic ones with Emma Roos as the dippy Ado Annie providing some laughter.

Color-blind casting is well-established and never raises an eyebrow but in this case it did. In the first scene we see a middle-aged black woman on stage and since we are in 1906 Indian Territory, the future Oklahoma, when we see a black woman we think of a servant or worse. In this case, African-American Judith Skinner plays Aunt Eller. She does a good job but decades of not seeing a black woman of the time in a role like that struck one, quite disgracefully, as peculiar.
 

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Oklahoma! Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Oklahoma! has a number of dance numbers including the extended “Dream Sequence” ballet. The choreography and the dancing left a great deal to be desired. I will leave it at that.

With songs like "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the beautiful "People Will Say We're in Love" and the rousing "Oklahoma!" you will not be left twiddling your thumbs. But we expected more from director Molly Smith and choreographer Parker Esse who either did not have the best cast or simply did not bring out the best in what they had.

No issue with conductor James Lowe and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

The set by Eugene Lee purported to present a scene or a vista of the wide-open territory. There was very little of that and the set appeared plastic and unimpressive.
            _____
 Oklahoma!  by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs will be performed thirteen times between July 8 and August 22, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

XERXES – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

        
James Karas

When a program for an opera gives you a diagram of who loves whom you brace yourself for a rough trip in trying to figure out the plot. When the names of four of the seven characters begin with the letter “a” you may consider yourself licked.

Fear not. This is opera seria and these people will fall in and out of love, throw in some treachery and all will live happily ever after. Well, most of them, anyway. Yes, Xerxes of Xerxes is the Persian Emperor Xerxes who got his butt kicked by the Greeks around 480 B.C. but Handel had better things to deal with in his opera.
 John Holiday in the title role of Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
A smidgeon of plot. Xerxes was betrothed to Amastris but dumped her. Now he loves Romilda. His brother Arsamenes also loves Romilda and she loves him (but not Xerxes). Atalanta also loves Arsamenes. She wants to trick Xerxes into marrying Romilda so she can have Arsamenes. Hint: intercept a letter and spread lies, Atalanta.

Amastris pops in disguised as a man to check out the situation. Romilda’s father Arodates checks in and all is worked out in the end.

Xerxes is a static opera with no chorus, a few duets but mostly recitatives and arias sung by the characters who tend to walk on stage, do their job and go off. There is no doubt about the beauty of most of the arias as well as Handel’s music.

Conductor Tazewell Thompson and Director Nicole Paiement have assembled a fine cast for the job. Countertenor John Holiday, Jr. leads the cast as Xerxes. He was last seen at Glimmerglass in 2015 as Giulio Cesare in Cato in Utica and again displayed his exquisite and delicate voice.
 
Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes, Emily Pogorelc as Romilda and Katrina Galka as Atalanta in Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mezzo soprano Allegra De Vita sings the role of the faithful Arsamenes. It is a pants role, obviously, and her low notes serve her well in a fine performance. My only minor complaint is about her costume. She is a woman pretending to be a man. Her costume should not make her look like a woman. There is enough confusion in the opera.

Glimmerglass has an extensive and redoubtable Young Artists program and five of the seven singers in Xerxes are drawn from that program. The tricky and mendacious Atalanta is in the vocal chords of soprano Katrina Galka; soprano Emily Pogorelc handles the role of Romilda; mezzo soprano Abigail Dock sang Amastris, the jilted one who appears disguised as a man.

Handel does provide a comic role in Elviro sung by bass baritone Calvin Griffin who is given scope for his comic talent as well as singing. Bass Brent Michael Smith plays Ariodates, the father of Romilda who is not involved in a love affair. I name all the Young Artists in recognition of their developing talents and fine performances.

Sara Jean Tosetti has designed some lovely gowns for the ladies. The set by John Conklin consists of three raised platforms and some hanging panels in the background. Changing light effects by Robert Wierzel provide plenty of color.      
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 Xerxes by George Frideric Handel (music) and Nicolo Minato and Silvio Stampiglia (libretto), is being performed seven times between July 15 and August 18, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE SIEGE OF CALAIS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in full swing and provides a cultural experience of the first order in a bucolic setting which might make you think of Arcadia. Where else do you find pastoral harmony and cultural pleasure? For the uninitiated, the Festival takes place on Lake Otsego a few miles from Cooperstown, N.Y. Yes, that is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is but you do not need Special Dispensation to go to both. Seeing the heroes of baseball, operas and a myriad of other cultural activities have been proven to provide have spiritual, emotional and physical benefits. Try getting that in front of a picture of Babe Ruth.

The Siege of Calais, Donizetti’s 48th opera, was a hit in Naples when it premiered in 1836. It did okay until 1840 and then it was mothballed for a nifty 150 years. It was resuscitated by Opera Rara and was even produced on stage. The uncontrollable desire, not to say ambition, to produce the opera in the United States took a few years, until July 2017 to be precise, when the Glimmerglass Festival raised the siege and produced it.
 
The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is quite a remarkable work partly for historical reasons (Donizetti trying to break into the Parisian market with a “French” opera – it did not work) and partly as an opera that deserves to be produced on its own merits. It needs some dramaturgy (it has a third act that requires surgery amounting to excision) but Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival and Music Director Joseph Colaneri have done the judicious editing that resulted in a brisk and fine production of the neglected work.

The siege refers to the blockade of the French port city by the English army under King Edward III in 1346 that resulted in its capitulation in about a year. As such it was an ordinary siege except for the fact that Edward agreed not to slaughter the citizens provided that six nobles agreed to be executed. That and Rodin’s famous statue of “The Burghers of Calais” has helped raise the garden-variety siege into something of mythical proportions.

Librettist Salvadore Cammarano tells the story through Eustachio, the Mayor of Calais, his son Aurelio and the burghers. Emotional punch is delivered by the fate of the people but it is enhanced by the presence of Aurelio’s wife Eleonora and his young son. When Edward demands six victims Eustachio, Aurelio and four others volunteer. The tragedy is averted by the entrance of Edward’s wife Queen Isabella. The six may be saved but the residents know that they have lost everything.
 

Aleks Romano as Aurelio, Rock Lasky as Filippo, and Leah Crocetto as Eleonora in "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
American mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano leads the cast in the pants role of Aurelio. She sings with assurance and conviction in one of the best portrayals of a man by a woman. She has the gait, movements and mannerisms of a man. That is the least of her accomplishments because she has a firm, commanding and marvelous voice to give a memorable performance.

She is well-matched by soprano Leah Crocetto as her wife Eleonora who has a large, indeed powerful, voice such that when she belted out some phrases in the small Alice Busch Opera Theatre she sounded as if she could shatter glass.

Adrian Timpau as Eustachio has an impressive, big voice but unfortunately it displayed strength without color.

Michael Hewitt replaced ably Harry Greenleaf as King Edward and gave a fine performance as did Helena Brown as Queen Isabella. Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus performed impressively. 

Zambello sets the production in a modern city that has been gutted by bombs. There are numerous examples of such cities in the news almost daily and the setting could not be more appropriate. Scenery Designer James Noone set consists of a revolving shattered building for most of the performance with the exception of a wall representing Calais on the outside.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus perform under the baton of Joseph Colaneri.

Donizetti as a composer had many virtues and not a few drawbacks. The Siege of Calais is by no means one of his best operas but it deserved to be produced.

Only at Glimmerglass, eh!        
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The Siege of Calais by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Salvadore Cammarano (libretto), is being performed eight times between July 16 and August 19, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MEDEA – REVIEW OF KAROLOS KOUN THEATRE PRODUCTION IN THESSALONIKI

Reviewed by James Karas

The Athens-based Theatro Technis Karolos Koun has staged a striking production of Euripides’ classic tragedy for the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. The production is being shown in a number of cities around Greece in addition to Epidaurus and I saw it in the open air Roman Theatro Dassous in Thessaloniki.

Marianna Calbari puts her own stamp on the play as director, dramaturge, adapter (the last two with Elena Triantafillopoulou) and actor and the end result is a riveting production. Calbari has added a subtitle calling the play Medea – The Barbarity of Love and has added text and poetry from other classical writers including Plato (Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium), Theocritus and Sappho.

Her most brilliant stroke is to us give us two Medeas. The first Medea (Maria Nafpliotou), the wife of Jason, lives in Corinth and is the character we know from Euripides. Calbari adds another Medea which she calls the Barbarian (Alexandra Kazazou) and she is the “original” woman from Colchis, the barbaric city on the      eastern shore of the Black Sea, the end of the world

The Barbarian Medea is a wildly sexual and passionate women. We see her rolling on a bed in the throes of ecstasy. This woman sacrificed everything, including her father, out of love for Jason, the hero who went to Colchis to get The Golden Fleece. The Barbarian   has magical powers and whether in Colchis or Corinth she is a woman to be reckoned with.
 
Alexandros Mylonas and Maria Nafpliotou in Madea
The Corinth Medea appears more civilized but she is a woman in agony. After all she did for Jason and the immense love and passion that she feels for him, he leaves her and the children for another woman – the innocent Glauce (Theodora Tzimou), the daughter of King Creon (Alexandros Mylonas). Jason makes a venal and cold-blooded decision in order to get the crown. He serves mealy-mouthed homilies that many husbands have used over the millennia: I still love you and I have to do this. I will give you money and look after you and the children. He goes as far as to say that he is betraying her for her own good!

Haris Fragoulis is a fine actor (and a lousy trumpet player) and his portrayal of Jason as a shallow, selfish and mercenary person is spot on. Interestingly, he considers Medea a monster and states that no Greek woman is like that. The scene between him and Medea where they hurl abuse and pleading is a point of extraordinary drama.

Medea becomes an implacable fury of hatred and vengeance leading to the inevitable destruction. Nafpliotou can display passion, hatred, grief, connivance and murderous fury with superb ability. Kazazou’s role as the alter ego of Corinth Medea is more limited but she gives a superlative performance as a woman of passion.

Calbari takes on the role of Medea’s Nurse and speaks some of Medea’s lines. She chants as well and generally gives a very dramatic performance. Mylonas as Creon in a purple robe is imperious and commanding.
   
Calbari makes judicious and intelligent use of the chorus with original music by Panagiotis Kalantzopoulos. Movement by Mariza Tsinga and chants used sparingly but very effectively are done exceptionally well avoiding the pitfalls of the use of the chorus that can mar a production.

The set designed by Constantinos Zamanis presents the central image of a large bed on a raised, revolving platform. It is an appropriate symbol of sexual desire and betrayal that starts the entire series of events from the successful theft of The Golden Fleece to the excruciating death of Glauce. The modern costumes do not detract from the drama and the large stage is used effectively.  

In short, this is a five star production starting from Calbari’s amazing dramaturgy and adaption, to her superb directing of a talented cast.


Monday, July 24, 2017

TWELFTH NIGHT – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Twelfth Night is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London this summer. It is directed by Emma Rice who is also the Artistic Director of the theatre. Ms Rice should have had the curtesy to warn people that what is on stage is not Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but an adaptation. Carl Grose is listed in the credits for “additional text and lyrics” and there are numerous cuts in the text, a great deal of music and dancing has been added and Shakespeare’s play has been dumbed down for a teenage audience. The warning should have concluded with the advice that Shakespeare lovers or people who respect the text should stay away.

I went to see Shakespeare’s play and not an adaptation for teenagers.
 
Le Gateau Chocolat, centre, as Feste and the cast on board in Twelfth Night. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.
The play opens on board a ship (appropriate) and a man in drag in a sequin dress with a grotesque wig starts singing. He has an impressive bass voice but what we get is about ten minutes of unpleasant noise. After the shipwreck near an island in northern Scotland in 1979 (we are told this in the programme) Viola asks “what country, friends, is this?” and everybody on stage answers “Illyria.” Are these the survivors of the wreck? Who are they? One person takes over the dialogue and tells her that Illyria is governed by Orsino and sure enough Orsino walks across the stage dancing and singing “If music be the food of love.” He mentions Olivia and she saunters across the stage. Welcome to Sesame Street.

The man in drag turns out to be Feste, the clown (Le Gateau Chocolat) who will get rid of the wig but keep the sequin dress. He will do a lot of singing and the rest of the cast will join in frequently. There is a band and it is used to the point where I wanted to scream “SHUT UP” especially when they played while characters were speaking.

Scene changes were effected with dancing when the whole cast came on stage, did a few steps and ran off. This was ridiculous, unnecessary and had no other effect than to keep the teenagers amused.

If Rice did not try so hard for the ridiculous, it could have been a good production. Anita-Joy Uwajeh made a spry and attractive Viola/Cesario as did John Pfumojena as her brother Sebastian. Annette McLaughlin was fine as Olivia but she looks a bit past her bloom of youth for the part. Joshua Lackey’s Orsino is a shallow, dancing and singing playboy and not the moping, love-sick duke.
 
Marc Antolin (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Carly Bawden (Maria) and Tony Jayawardena (Sir Toby Belch). 
Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Katy Owen made an interesting Malvolio. She is a petite woman with an elastic body who can kick her heels above her head. She is a very feisty Malvolio and in a normal production would have been superb.

Marc Antolin’s Sir Andrew is played like the old caricature of an effeminate man in a pink sweater and Tony Jayawardena’s golfing Sir Toby gets the laughs when they play Shakespeare.

In other words, Shakespeare managed to break through despite the countless alterations, additions, subtractions, dumbing down and garbage brought in by Rice and Grose. By the end of the performance I was so infuriated that the only word I could come with when asked my opinion was excrement.
__________

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare plays in repertory until August 5, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com


Sunday, July 16, 2017

DON GIOVANNI – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Jérémie Rhorer
Stage Director                                    Jean-François Sivadier
Stage Designer                                   Alexandre de Dardel
Costume Designer                              Virginie Gervaise
Lighting Designer                              Philippe Berthomé

Don Giovanni                                     Philippe Sly
Leporello                                            Nahuel di Pierro
Donna Anna                                        Eleonora Buratto
Don Ottavio                                        Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira                                      Isabel Leonard
Zerlina                                                Julie Fuchs
Masetto                                               Krzysztof Baczyk
Il Commendatore                                David Leigh

Chorus                                                English Voices
Orchestra                                            Le Cercle de l'Harmonie

At the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 26 Rue Gaston de Saporta, Aix-en-Provence, France, for eight performances from July 6 to 21, 2017

Jean-François Sivadier’s production of Don Giovanni for the Aix-en-Provence Festival may be described as Apostolic. There are a number of names that may be apt but the last scene which is fresh in my mind suggested that word.

When the flames engulf Don Giovanni (which in this production they do not) the other characters show up and celebrate the end of the life of an evildoer and things return to normal. In Sivadier’s production, Don Giovanni is centre-stage, almost naked with long blond hair. Leporello grabs him from behind at one point and he spreads out his arms. This is Christ on the cross.
 

He stands in the middle of a bright spotlight. In an earlier scene the word LIBERTA appeared on the back wall of the set, in large red letters except for the letter “t” which is in the form of a cross. In the final scene, Don Giovanni’s jacket is hung on that cross.

After standing still for a few minutes in the bright spotlight, he gets a rush of energy and does some athletic movements and remains on the stage. He is not engulfed by anything of course and I wondered if the bright spotlight and the other indicia are supposed to tell us that Don Giovanni was not only not punished but was transfigured.

The Christ figure is preceded by Don Giovanni as a circus clown with a ridiculous blond wig. He looks pretty unattractive most of the time and I thought this man may not be able to hire an hourly sex worker, let alone cause women to become enamored and indeed obsessed with him past all understanding. 

This is a new production of the opera and Sivadier wants to put his stamp on it. In most respect the attempt misfires and the result is a largely unpleasant performance.

A few more points may have to suffice. The peasants are very happy that Masetto and Zerlina are getting married and they are wearing traditional country clothing. But they decide to boogie. Good grief. The costumes and the sets are of no help in giving us the age when the opera takes place unless it is at the time of Christ. That neither helps nor is it convincing but the opera  does take place at one time or another.  
 
Sivadier seems to think that singers should address the audience regardless of the suggestions of the music and the libretto. When Don Giovanni sings “Là ci darem la mano’ to the peasant Zerlina, he is trying to seduce her. Sivadier positions them across the stage as if they are addressing the audience. This happens many times and if there is a reason for it, it escaped me completely.

The set itself is incomprehensible to me. A large square platform, tilted towards the audience dominates the set. There are some curtains that are raised and lowered and several gold banners for Leporello and Don Giovanni to hide behind when they are horsing around with the ladies. There are some colourful lights as well.

People appear on stage, walk around and disappear. I did not get what they were supposed to represent or what Sivadier was trying to tell us.

Sly as Don Giovanni was not convincing as a lover, or a seducer, or Christ figure. He may have done well as a clown but that was the last thing I wanted to see. Among these shenanigans he managed to sing well.

Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira starts out by calling Don Giovanni a traitor, a liar and a villain. Those accusations need fury in her voice which she did not apply.  Eleonora Buratto does a good job as Donna Anna but she does not seem to communicate well with the sappy Don Ottavio. He does find his voice and delivers promises that do not convince Donna Anna and she dumps him.

Fuchs as Zerlina was a sheer delight with the slight tremolo in her voice as the street-smart country lass marrying the oaf Masetto. The ones that never failed were the English Voices.

Conductor Jérémie Rhorer started Le Cercle de l'Harmonie orchestra at a very leisurely pace but did pick up speed.

The best that can be said for the production is that it is a headscratcher and I will leave it at that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

CARMEN – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Pablo Heras-Casado
Stage Director and Designer              Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume Designer                              Elena Zaytseva
Lighting Designer                              Gleb Filshtinsky
Spoken Dialogue rewritten by           Dmitri Tcherniakov

Carmen                                               Stéphanie d'Oustrac
Don José                                             Michael Fabiano
Micaëla                                               Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo                                            Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita                                             Gabrielle Philiponet
Zuniga                                                 Christian Helmer
Moralès                                               Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre                                        Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendado                                    Mathias Vidal*
L'Administrateur                                Pierre Grammont

Chorus                                                Chœur Aedes
Children's choir                                  Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône

Orchestra                                            Orchestre de Paris

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 4 to July 20, 2017.

Before the performance of Carmen begins, the audience is given a warning. There is an appearance of danger during the performance. It is part of the production and not real, we are told.
           
As you enter the auditorium of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix-en-Provence for Carmen you notice that the stage is decorated with black leather chairs, coffee tables, a water fountain and closed circuit cameras. This looks like the waiting room of a large enterprise yet you have come to see Bizet’s opera which you know is not set in a waiting room. You will soon realize that this is the set for the entire opera and it is in fact the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital

Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov has turned Bizet’s opera into therapy session for an emotionally disturbed man. I can only describe the transformation as a work of a genius even though I have some reservations about it. How does he do it?

A man and a woman walk into the waiting room and they are met by someone. The couple have come for help with the man’s emotional issues. He wears a blue suit and she has an elegant pink coat. They are told that they will participate in a performance of Carmen as a therapeutic vehicle for the husband. He will take the role of Carmen and she will play Micaela.

The overture begins and we watch a performance of Carmen all in the waiting room. We are reminded a number of times that this is not a performance of Carmen per se but a production in which  hospital staff, including Carmen and the couple who seek help, are performing in order to cure the husband. This does require a few liberties with the libretto which Tcherniakov takes care of but the objective of the performance is always clear.

The problem is that we are removed from the “reality” of the opera and watch an unreal production for a specific purpose. We hear the children’s chorus but there are no children to be seen. The march of the soldiers is indicated by “the hospital staff” who are participating in the therapy but they are dressed in their work clothes and that is all we see in terms of costumes.

Carmen is limited in her dancing and sexually provocative performance because Lillas Pastia’s tavern is the waiting room and we feel the distance between the realities almost throughout. I say almost because by the end of the performance the pretend and the real Carmen blend into a powerful and wrenching conclusion to the opera that is emotionally draining.

Soprano d’Oustrac has some constraints in her performance. She has a lustrous and luscious voice and can be sexually magnetic but she knows that she is only acting. When the patient’s (as Don José) passion gets too “real” she walks off the stage only to be told that she is a professional and must finish the job. She does not do any dancing but her performance is astounding and by the end there is no “real” or real Carmen just a great performance that garnered an extended and well-deserved standing ovation.

Tenor Fabiano as the patient/Don José has in effect a much better acting opportunity than  a straight Don José. He wants to be sensible and stay with his nice wife who plays Micaela but he cannot control himself. He is thus doubly dramatic as a man and a patient in a performance that leaves you breathless. He has great vocal and emotional impact of the highest order.

We are taken in by Dreisig as the sympathetic wife who takes her husband to seek help and as the lovely and innocent Micaela who, as the latter, is dumped because Don José falls for the loose cannon known as Carmen and as for the former…well, we can only imagine what she must have gone through with him to find herself in a psychiatric hospital, performing in an opera no less.

American baritone Simpson is just what the doctor ordered for an Escamillo, be it as hospital staff or real. Dressed in a white suit, he is heroic, self-assured, vocally superb and utterly romantic and seductive. He will never need a psychiatrist.

The taking of directorial liberties with established works has come under severe criticism but there are examples like Tcherniakov’s productions where the dabbling with the familiar produces a work of genius that most of us could not have imagined.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

ERISMENA – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Leonardo García Alarcón
Stage Director and Lighting               Jean Bellorini
Stage Designer                                   Jean Bellorini et Véronique Chazal
Costume Designer                              Macha Makeïeff
Make-up and hairstyling                    Cécile Kretschmar

Erismena                                            Francesca Aspromonte
Idraspe                                               Carlo Vistoli
Aldimira                                            Susanna Hurrell
Orimeno                                            Jakub Józef Orliński
King Erimante                                  Alexander Miminoshvili
Flerida                                              Lea Desandre
Argippo                                            Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Alcesta                                             Stuart Jackson
Clerio Moro                                      Tai Oney
Diarte                                                Jonathan Abernethy

Orchestra                                            Cappella Mediterranea

At the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, 21 rue de l’Opera, Aix-en-Provence, from July 7 to July 21, 2017

Erismena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was a big hit in 1655. Its popular appeal has dropped somewhat since then and it is almost never produced these days. But the Aix-en-Provence Festival is giving this rarity an outstanding production and the Festival  gets a laurel wreath for intelligent and aggressive programming. A world premiere of Pinocchio, an opera by Philippe Boesmans, the production of a very early opera and three familiar works, Carmen, Don Giovanni and The Rake’s Progress, cover a lot of ground, to say the least.

Erismena is a product of its period. A complex story is told through accompanied recitatives and “songs” but this is before the development of the aria so don’t expect lengthy da capo cadenzas.
 
The language of the opera is ornate, colourful and formulaic. All emotions are extreme. They love, adore, die, suffer, and languish on extraordinary levels and at great length. We accept the mode of expression as a relic of the early years of opera.

The plot is almost impossible to digest by trying to read a synopsis or follow the English surtitles of the performance that is sung in Italian. Director Jean Bellorini tries to be helpful by inserting a scene at the beginning where King Erimante of Media, after defeating the Armenians, dreams of his crown being stolen from him by a knight.

Erismena is in love with Idraspe who dumped her. She disguises herself as an Armenian soldier and goes in search of him but is wounded. She is taken to the court of King Erimante. The disguised and brave Erismena is entrusted to the slave Aldimira. And, you guessed it, Aldimira falls in love with Erismena.

Prince Idraspe shows up in Media disguised as Erineo and he is in love (provide your own adverbs) with Aldimira. Idraspe as Erineo is ordered to poison Erismena but she recognizes him and passes out, ergo no poisoning. Stay with me. Erismena pretends to be her own brother out to find Idraspe. Aldimira has a deal: I find Idraspe, you marry me.

That puts a kibosh on King Erimante’s plan to marry Aldimira and he throws Aldimira and the disguised Erismena in jail. They all escape and are caught and the King orders Idraspe/Erineo and Erismena to kill each other. At which point Erismena bears her breasts to show that she is a woman. Idraspe goes through a quickie metamorphosis (I love you; forgive me). She does and we all find out that Erismena is the king’s daughter.

I have given you only one strand of the plot. There must be another dozen of them but who is counting. There are ten characters and every one of them has a convoluted story.
 
The singing is quite marvelous even without the lengthy arias and coloratura cadenzas.  Soprano Francesca Aspromonte has a sumptuous voice and she gives a marvelous performance in a role that requires a lot of running on and off stage. That is true for all the cast. The other soprano in the cast is Susanna Hurrell who gives an equally fine performance.

There are two countertenors in Carlo Vistoli as Idraspe and Jakub Józef Orliński as Prince Orimeno (who is dumped by Aldimira but he eventually marries her). Always a delight to hear finely tuned high male voices. The King is sung by Alexander Miminoshvili, a bass baritone as becomes the rank of the role.

Tenor Stuart Jackson plays the old nurse Alcesta. He is a big man dressed in a purple dress and provides a bit of comedy. I thought Alcesta would provide quite a few laughs but that simply did not fully materialize.      

The sets by Jean Bellorini and Véronique Chazal were minimalist, sometimes consisting of a couple of chairs and at times using a platform and effective lighting to indicate dreams. The costumes by Macha Makeïeff were of no particular time period but they may be described as modern. Dresses, kilts, skirts, a fur jacket, some colourful shoes, they went all over the place.

One of the big delights was the tiny Cappella Mediterranea orchestra conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. They provided a wonderful treat of 17th century music that made you accept the plot twists without wincing.
 A fascinating night at the opera.

Monday, July 10, 2017

PINOCCHIO – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

PINOCCHIO – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

Conductor                                           Emilio Pomarico
Director                                              Joël Pommerat
Set and Lighting                                 Éric Soyer
Costumes Designer                            Isabelle Deffin
Video                                                  Renaud Rubiano

Manager of Theatre
Company and Circus etc.                   Stéphane Dégout
The Father, The School
Master etc.                                          Vincent Le Texier
The Puppet                                          Chloé Briot
The Cabaret Manager, The
Judge, The Donkey Dealer etc.          Yann Beuron
The Cabaret Singer, The Naughty
Pupil                                                   Julie Boulianne
The Fairy                                            Marie-Eve Munger
Stage musicians
Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone, imrovisation coordination), Philippe Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (violin)

Orchestra                                            Klangforum Wien

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 3 to July 16, 2017
           
The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in full swing with an astonishing array of events in a mere three weeks (July 3 to 22, 2017). Six operas are featured starting with Pinocchio, a new work by Philippe Boesmans receiving its world premiere. And that is just a part of the cultural wealth available. Let’s start with Pinocchio.

The libretto by Joël Pommerat is based on the classic fairy tale by Carlo Collodi. The librettist also directs the production. Pommerat tells the story of the wooden puppet whose nose grows frightfully when he lies. The telling is through a Homeric-type bard, the manager of a travelling theatre company, who is blind, narrates, sings and guides us through the story. He illustrates his darkness for us and we see the story through his own “sight” or darkness.
 
Pinocchio and the Fairy
The tale is also a picaresque story full of adventures as Pinocchio goes through a number of episodes from meeting murderers and a fairy, to going to prison and joining a circus as a donkey, to going to school and finally “growing up.” The picaresque is wrapped in a morality tale (after all it is a children’s story) with lessons like obey your parents, go to school and don’t lie, especially do not lie.  

Boesmans has composed a variety of musical styles from recitative, to singing, to some gypsy music as well as some operatic flourishes. Soprano Chloé Briot plays Pinocchio, the rascally puppet who goes through all kinds of misconduct until he is reconciled with his kind Father (bass-baritone Vincent Le Texier).

Pinocchio is dressed in a black coat with a hood over his head and a white mask over his face. We do not seem him as a boy until near the end when he has gone through the transformation of becoming the hero of a morality tale. Briot does an excellent job in the role.

Except for the Fairy, the other main members of the cast take several roles each. Stéphane Dégout in addition to being the manager of the travelling theatre company, also appears as a criminal, a murderer and the manager of the circus. He is quite superb both vocally and as a master of ceremonies, a bard and criminal.

Le Texier plays a murderer, an amusing and exasperated school teacher and the kindly old father who gives “birth” to Pinocchio when his beloved tree is felled by a storm.     

Tenor Yann Beuron plays the Judge, the donkey merchant and cabaret manager and two other roles. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne is the cabaret singer and the naughty pupil with some opportunity for humour. Soprano-Marie-Eve Munger plays the Fairy and she gets some of the operatic flourishes as she lectures Pinocchio. A fine cast.

With some exceptions, this is a dark show, full of shadows and smoke. Most of the story is acted in small spaces. There is generous use of projected videos that add tremendously to the dark, ominous atmosphere of the adventures through which Pinocchio passes. The lighting by Éric Soyer is magnificent in adding to the atmosphere of the opera.
Pinocchio in school
There is a band on stage who(which) play(s) some rousing traditional music. The Fairy, in a long white dress, stands high above the characters on the stage. These are almost the only occasions when the darkness of the production is relieved. The murderers look like Ku Klux Klan members.

The Klangforum Wien was conducted by Emilio Pomarico.

Pinocchio seems to be intended for children and adults. There were numerous children, perhaps as young as six years, in the audience and I am not sure how much of the story they got or enjoyed. There was a youngster sitting beside me who spent most of the time making comments or asking his mother questions about the production. (A future critic?) His mother tried to keep him quiet to no avail and then stuck a lollipop in his mouth. That restrained his commentary for a while but it was replaced by slurping. She must have given up as they did not return for the second act. That was probably the only questionable review that the performance received.